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Survey Shows Waning Concern About HIV/AIDS, Even in High Risk Groups

By L.K. Regan

Less than a year ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that they had grossly underestimated the scale of the American HIV/AIDS crisis, and that, in fact, annual infection rates were 40 percent higher than previously believed. Despite this fact, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey finds that Americans are less concerned about HIV/AIDS than ever before, and that even high-risk groups have a troublingly low sense of personal risk. In addition, those groups continue to suffer from misinformation about HIV and AIDS transmission and treatment.

The Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a telephone survey of over 2500 adults between January and March of 2009. Here is some of what they found: Overall, Americans no longer perceive HIV/AIDS as the most urgent health problem facing the nation, with only six percent holding that opinion now compared to 17 percent in 2006 and 44 percent in 1995. While that number can be seen within the context of overall improvements in treatments and survival, the numbers among high-risk groups are overly sanguine. HIV rates are seven times higher among African Americans and three times higher among Latinos compared to whites, and so it is appropriate that these groups are more likely than whites to see HIV/AIDS as an urgent problem. However, fewer say it is a “more urgent” problem for their community now than in 2006 (declining from 23 percent to 17 percent of all adults, 49 to 40 percent of African Americans, and 46 to 35 percent of Latinos).

Since 1997, the number of young African Americans who feel personally concerned about becoming infected declined from 54 percent to 40 percent (among whites that rate of descent was from 30 to 17 percent). In short, the direction of the numbers is worrying. “Many indicators of urgency and concern are moving in the wrong direction, including for higher risk groups,” said Kaiser President and CEO Drew Altman. “The survey underscores the need for a new focus on domestic HIV."

Also worrying is continued evidence of misconceptions about HIV/AIDS in the population, despite constant efforts at public health education over the last decade. The study shows clear evidence of continued confusion about how HIV is transmitted. Furthermore, nearly one in five (18 percent) of survey respondents do not know there is no cure for AIDS and about one-quarter (27 percent) believe or are uncertain whether former professional basketball player Magic Johnson has been cured of AIDS. Additionally, a quarter (24 percent) believe or are uncertain whether there is a vaccine available to prevent HIV infection (particularly disturbing given that those people would then believe in a vaccine they had not troubled to acquire). Given their increased risk for HIV, it is particularly troubling to see that these misconceptions are more prevalent in the African American community, where 37 percent of African Americans think Magic Johnson has been cured or are uncertain, 36 percent believe there is an HIV vaccine, and 30 percent believe there are drugs that cure HIV and AIDS.

Any good news? A little. There are signs that the social stigma of HIV is declining. More Americans than ever before (44 percent, up 12 percent since 1997) would be comfortable with an HIV+ coworker. But still, just over 50 percent of the survey respondents would be uncomfortable having their food prepared by an HIV+ person. Not surprisingly, people who had incorrect understandings of how HIV is transmitted and treated were far more likely to be uncomfortable with an HIV+ person in their environment—to the tune of 30 percent. Education is clearly every bit as important now as it ever was.